Judge Orders Removal of Ads in Fight Between Beer Giants

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Multimillion-dollar Bud Light advertisements insinuating that Miller Lite and Coors Light contain high-fructose corn syrup went a step too far, a federal judge in Wisconsin said late Friday in an order blocking the ads.

In this March 11, 2015 file photo, newly filled and sealed cans of Miller Lite beer move along a conveyor belt at the MillerCoors Brewery in Golden, Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

MillerCoors filed its false advertising lawsuit in March, claiming an ad campaign concocted by rival Anheuser-Busch misled consumers into believing that Miller Lite and Coors Light, two of MillerCoors’ flagship products, contain the sweetener in an attempt to irreparably harm MillerCoors’ products in the crowded beer marketplace and increase the sales of Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light.

The ad campaign was introduced during this year’s Super Bowl and also aired during the Academy Awards.

Two weeks ago, attorneys for the beer giants argued before U.S. District Judge William Conley in Madison, Wisconsin, discussing at length the gray area between advertisements that seek to surreptitiously promote a common misunderstanding, getting consumers to make logical leaps to alter brand loyalties, and comparing ingredients and brewing process between products.

MillerCoors had argued that the prominent TV and billboard ads are meant to purposely confuse customers and imply that if people drink Miller Lite or Coors Light they are consuming high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener found in hundreds of products that is increasingly being linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.

The company says it uses a very different product – plain corn syrup – in its fermentation process, which is completely consumed by the yeast and therefore absent in the final beverage. It argued that it is a falsehood to state that the finished products contain corn syrup.

In his order issued late Friday, Judge Conley found that MillerCoors had proven that a substantial segment of its consumer base had been deceived by certain Anheuser-Busch ads in the corn syrup campaign and had demonstrated enough injury “to support a finding that the reputation of its light beers has been injured by the challenged, misleading advertisements.”

Finding a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims, Conley granted MillerCoors’ request for a preliminary injunction enjoining Anheuser-Busch’s ads from using specific language in its commercials, print advertisements and social media. But the judge called the injunction “limited” and declined to include other advertisements and language in the court’s order.

The order bars Anheuser-Busch from using a range of misleading statements in its ads. Among them are the claim that “Bud Light contains ‘100% less corn syrup,’” a statement Conley called “misleading in the extreme” during oral arguments.

Also temporarily enjoined are advertisements that mention corn syrup without any reference to “brewed with,” “made with” or “uses,” or any ad that falsely describes corn syrup as an ingredient in MillerCoors’ finished products.

Anheuser-Busch representatives noted during arguments that the company has already ended some of the contested advertisements and those that have not been discontinued are in the process of being taken down.

Conley wrote that MillerCoors’ false advertising claims under the Lanham Act had mostly satisfied the law’s provisions, and said the injunction “supports the public’s interest in truthful advertising.”

However, the judge declined to include in his injunction certain language and depictions on Bud Light’s packaging pertaining to corn syrup as an ingredient, which MillerCoors’ counsel had urged Conley to enjoin at the end of oral arguments.

The order gives MillerCoors until June 3 to file a supplementary brief arguing for that point going forward.

Despite the injunction, Anheuser-Busch said in a statement Saturday that the court’s ruling “is a victory for consumers” because it still allows Anheuser-Busch to run one of its Super Bowl commercials implying that Miller Lite and Coors Light are brewed using corn syrup, a fact that the order states is not disputed by either party.

Representatives for MillerCoors could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday morning.

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